A State's Oldest Youth Offender

At age 33, convicted murderer and sex offender Donald Schmidt is the oldest ward of the California Youth Authority. He's served the sentence he received as a juvenile offender, but authorities say Schmidt is too dangerous to be put back on the streets.

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In California, a 33-year-old convicted child killer is being held in a youth correctional facility, because the state doesn't know what else to do with him. Donald Schmidt is housed with scores of young offenders half his age. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, because Schmidt was tried as a juvenile, the state says it can't lock him away in a prison for adults.


In Santa Cruz, California, people still talk about that night 17 years ago when a three-year-old girl was raped and drowned in her bathtub while her parents were in another room, entertaining guests. At the time, Donald Schmidt was just 16. He was a runaway who had been taken in by little Marihia Lea Silvola's mother and father. Police say when they saw her, the child was unconscious, barely alive after Schmidt had held her head underwater. Gail Levey, a neighborhood emergency responder, still remembers that horrible scene.

Ms. GAIL LEVEY (Neighborhood Emergency Responder): Everyone else in the room was very emotional. Donald showed no emotion whatsoever. He was leaning up against the wall. I attributed that to intoxication. His stare was very icy. He was very detached and was just staring at Marihia.

GONZALES: The little girl died two days later. Donald Schmidt was arrested and convicted of her murder. Because he was tried as a juvenile, Schmidt was sent to the California Youth Authority where he became eligible for release at age 25. Now he's 33 and still confined to a youth facility in San Bernardino, California.

Ms. ARIADNE SYMONS (Santa Cruz County Prosecutor): We have fought vigorously ever since 1997, when he was first eligible for release.

GONZALES: Ariadne Symons is a Santa Cruz County prosecutor who has gone to court four times to prevent Schmidt from winning his release.

Ms. SYMONS: I don't see any change on the horizon. Once a sociopath, always a sociopath.

GONZALES: Under California law, young offenders are regarded as wards, not prisoners. The state pledges to rehabilitate them. But Symons says Schmidt hasn't responded to years of psychological counseling and is still dangerous.

Ms. SYMONS: The shocking nature of the crime, the premeditated nature, the pain to that child, the way he staged it, all of that, one could easily argue that he should, in fact, have received life in prison. But then you add to that the complete failure to benefit from the extensive programs that he's been through, to admit the sexual interest in children. I mean, if you don't admit it, you can't control it, and he won't admit it.

GONZALES: The question is what to do with him. Because Schmidt was tried as a juvenile, he can't be transferred to an adult prison, even though at 33, he's the oldest person in California's Youth Authority, twice as old as many of the troubled teens who are there with him. Recent reports that Schmidt was about to be released to a halfway facility caused a public outcry. But Sarah Ludeman, a spokeswoman for the California Youth Authority, says Schmidt isn't going anywhere for now.

Ms. SARAH LUDEMAN (Spokeswoman, California Youth Authority): He will remain until all parties can agree that he can be placed somewhere else.

GONZALES: Ludeman says while Schmidt will still be housed with very young offenders, his contact with them is limited. There won't be any more cases like his since California's law has changed. Juveniles can now be transferred to adult prisons when they get older. But Barry Krisberg, head of the National Council of Crime and Delinquency, says when it comes to Donald Schmidt's case, there are no good options.

Mr. BARRY KRISBERG (National Council of Crime and Delinquency): They can put him somewhere else and designate that as a Youth Authority facility, but that's kind of far-fetched. I mean, this is sort of the classic dilemma of the case of one.

GONZALES: State officials won't speculate how long Schmidt is likely to remain in custody as a youth offender. He's eligible for release in November 2006.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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